- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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Understand this about the plummeting field goal percentages, the decisive air ball against the Miami Heat, the unflattering statistical comparisons to Raymond Felton: None of it has stopped Jeremy Lin from believing he can honor his own prediction and become an NBA All-Star.
He first delivered the forecast to a few confidants after going undrafted out of Harvard, after starting one of the more improbable journeys pro basketball has ever seen. Lin ultimately hit Madison Square Garden the way the Beatles once hit Shea, suddenly making the world's most famous arena home to the world's most likable team before the New York Knicks let him sign with a franchise that had already dumped him, the Houston Rockets.
And yet Lin hasn't let that transaction temper his belief that he'll someday stand among the NBA's best point guards. Asked in a phone interview Tuesday night whether he still believes he will become an All-Star, Lin told ESPNNewYork.com, "At some point, for sure. Right now I have a ways to go, but at some point, yes. I try to get better every year, and if I do that and work on the things that are problems for me right now, I definitely think I'll have that chance."
On Friday night in Houston, Lin will have a chance to shake off his early-season struggles and remind the Knicks of what they had together across last season's magical midwinter run. Not that the Rockets' 24-year-old playmaker sees Mike Woodson's 8-1 team as one in need of another dose of Linsanity.
"I think they're definitely a championship-contending team," Lin said. "They have the defense, Coach Woodson's specialty. They're really deep, they have a lot of explosive players, and right now they're trusting each other and trusting the system."
Lin said he's been too busy learning on the fly in Houston, learning how to play with James Harden and the rest, to watch very much of the Knicks. The good friends he left behind, Steve Novak and Iman Shumpert, keep him updated with their texts.
They've likely avoided texting or talking too much about Felton, the guy who took Lin's job, the guy who's outplayed Lin over the first three weeks of the season.
Lin was asked whether he checks Felton's numbers first when he scans the Internet for his late-night NBA box scores. "Not really," he said. "I look at them all. I think the key thing for me is, it's not about me versus him. It's not about us versus [the Knicks]. We're in different places. I think [Felton] is more of a veteran on a veteran team, and I'm a young player on a very young team.
"At the end of the day, I don't really compare the two of us. I have no idea what his numbers are. Literally, I have no idea. I've got to keep getting better and focus on the standards I have for myself. If I get distracted, it takes me out of character."
After flipping the NBA on its ear, after dropping 38 on the Lakers and all but making New Yorkers forget their Giants had just won another Super Bowl, Lin was set to become a Knick for life. Everyone, the Knicks included, assured him it would happen. He was supposed to mend the left knee injury that kept him out of the Miami playoff series, and he was supposed to sign a multiyear deal and eventually grow old with Shumpert in the backcourt.
Woodson took the restricted free agent to dinner with Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler. Even after word leaked that the Rockets and Lin had verbally agreed to a four-year, $28.8 million deal, including a $9.3 million team option in Year 4, Woodson told reporters the Knicks "absolutely" would match Houston's offer and that Lin would start ahead of the newly acquired yoda, Jason Kidd.
Woodson's quotes would lead directly to the Knicks-Lin divorce. Knowing they had to enhance their offer to stand any shot of landing Lin, the Rockets came in at $25.1 million guaranteed over three years, including a $15 million poison pill wage in Year 3.
"I got out of a workout, and my agent called me and said, 'There's a new offer,'" Lin recalled. "I said, 'What happened to the old one?' I was told it wasn't on the table anymore, that they scratched it and made a new one."
Jim Dolan, Knicks owner, was furious over Houston's new-and-improved offer and Lin's decision to accept it despite the massive luxury-tax hit it would impose on the very team that gave this thrice-released D-Leaguer a stage. Soon enough, Felton was acquired and Knicks GM Glen Grunwald was dialing up Lin on his cellphone, calling to tell the point guard he'd been fired.
"I had seen it coming when they signed Felton, but I wasn't for sure for sure until I got that call," Lin said. "Glen was very classy and polite and just told me, 'Unfortunately we won't be able to match, but we want to wish you the best of luck in the future and we'll be rooting from New York.'
"Now I've got to change my mindset. It was like, 'Wow, I'm not going back there.' The phone call only took about a minute ... and I have no problem with their business plan and their strategy. They had to do what was best for them, and I had to do what was best for me. There's no telling what would've happened had everything been different."
Despite sources claiming otherwise, Lin still doesn't believe Dolan made the decision a personal one. "Allan Houston was the one who called me afterward," Lin said of the Knicks' former star and current executive, "and he was like, 'Man, best of luck, keep in touch, and if there's anything you need, I've got you.' That was more like a friends phone call than a player-to-assistant-GM phone call. I honestly don't think [Dolan] was mad at me. It just came down to the numbers and the luxury tax."
Anthony had famously called Houston's revised offer to Lin "ridiculous," violating a code of honor among professional athletes calling for public support -- or at least respectful silence -- when a peer is about to hit the jackpot.
"I didn't know how it was said or the context, so I didn't read too much into that, and that's the truth," Lin said. "I'm OK with it. When I was there, he was really nice to me. I'm not really bothered by it, to be honest. There were a lot of other things to be bothered by."
Like the assumption that Lin was something of a fluke, a limited guard who was temporarily exposed in February by the swarming Heat and who would surely prove the Rockets' investment in him was, well, ridiculous. The NBA hadn't seen an Asian American player do the things Lin was doing, and he believes his race inspired doubts about his athleticism and staying power.
"It definitely had a part in it," Lin said. "I don't know how big, and that's something we'll never know. But being Asian American definitely had a part, and I can say that with confidence.
"There's also the flip side, which is that I am young and inexperienced ... and I did struggle last year before I got hurt."
The meniscus tear is healed now, but Lin pauses when asked whether his left knee is 100 percent. He caused a stir during last season's Miami series when he said he was 85 percent of the way back to full strength, a quote he swore was taken out of context as the calls for him to rub some dirt on it and play intensified.
"Is it 100 percent healthy?" Lin said before pausing again. "It's fine, I guess. There's a little bit more I can still get back as far as jumping and explosiveness. ... But I'm closer than I've ever been and I'm really excited."
Lin has had his moments with Houston, including a 21-point, 10-rebound, seven-assist performance against Atlanta. Only, there is that embarrassing air ball against Miami that keeps finding the highlights, and that alarming field goal percentage of .342. Lin is averaging a respectable 10.5 points per game with a 6.6-to-2.6 assist-to-turnover ratio, but Felton has similar assist and turnover numbers while averaging 15.4 points per game and shooting .434 from the field.
If point guards are to be judged like quarterbacks, it's worth noting Felton also is running an 8-1 team while Lin is out of the wild-card picture at 4-7. But then again, Lin is four years younger than Felton and tantamount to a rookie quarterback.
"I've started  games now, and that's not even half a season," Lin said. "I think that's something I need to remember. ... I have to be patient with myself, and understand there's been a lot of change in my life and with this Houston team. We can't expect it all to fall into place. It's going to take some time."
Through his foundation Tuesday afternoon, Lin distributed turkeys and groceries to 100 families in need, an experience he said eased the pain of three straight losses on the road. He said the Houston community has embraced him the same way New York did when he came off the bench and off his brother's couch.
As Lin spoke, he was focusing on Wednesday's home game with Chicago and addressing the Knicks only because of their place in his stunning narrative. Mike D'Antoni, now the Lakers' coach, spoke recently of his troubles at the Garden and of doubting his own ability to lead a team before "Jeremy put everything back in order."
It lasted only a New York minute. The Knicks never made Lin a formal offer to stay.
"I didn't have a decision," Lin said. "But I have a lot of peace about everything just because I know God doesn't make mistakes. This isn't the first time in my life that things have gone differently from what I anticipated."
So Lin will line up Friday night across from the Knicks, something nobody believed would happen last spring.
"I'm not sure how I'm going to feel," he said of the game and of next month's rematch in the Garden. "I'm not going to overthink it. I'm going to let it happen. This is a game, that's all it is, and I want to have fun with some of my former teammates by joking around with them, and then getting after it and really competing.
"I had the time of my life in New York, but now it's a new chapter."
It's been a hell of a book so far, and Jeremy Lin still believes in his happy ending.
7dEthan Sherwood Strauss